The winner of the Campaigner of the Year category in The Great Outdoors Awards 2018 is broadcaster and naturalist Chris Packham. Emily Rodway interviewed Chris to find out more about his extraordinary efforts to make politicians and the public sit up and take notice of the perilous state of our wildlife – and about his optimism for the future
This interview was first published in our January issue, which is available now (free postage). To read all our coverage of The Great Outdoors Awards 2018, with full details of the winners, pick up a copy of the magazine.
Chris Packham: Campaigner of the Year 2018
By Emily Rodway, Editor of The Great Outdoors
On 22 September 2018, thousands of people gathered in central London for the inaugural People’s Walk for Wildlife, an event initiated and led by naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham. The rally was planned to enable ordinary people peacefully to express their feelings about the devastating loss of wildlife in the UK and the lack of action to tackle it from those in the seats of power.
This was just one element of a much, much bigger project. Earlier in the year, at the height of the summer, Chris Packham and a team of wildlife experts conducted what he dubbed a ‘Bioblitz’, visiting 50 wildlife sites across the UK, auditing the species they found there and recording the data to create a benchmark against which scientists can measure future rises and falls in numbers.
Then, in the same week as the Walk for Wildlife, Chris published A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife, a document drawn up in consultation with 17 independent experts and scientists – including Robert Macfarlane, Mark Carwardine and George Monbiot – and conceived as a toolkit, a collection of 200 ideas “which, if implemented today, would make a huge difference for wildlife tomorrow.”
“I feel very frustrated when people have a voice and don’t use it for a creative good. We need to stand up and be counted for a planet in crisis.”
If you haven’t already done so, I urge you to read it. But take a deep breath first. The statistics A People’s Manifesto quotes about the perilous state of the UK’s wildlife are heart-breaking (between 1970 and 2013, 56% of UK species declined; of the nearly 8,000 species assessed using modern criteria, 15% are threatened with extinction) but as a call to action, it is both eye-opening and rousing.
Backed up with rigorous research, the Manifesto is packed full of creative ideas with the potential to make a difference – everything from putting nature at the centre of the education curriculum to the introduction of a pesticide tax, and for 10% of every farm to be managed for wildlife. And it recognises the crucial importance of our uplands – those places beloved of readers of this magazine – and offers radical suggestions for how to optimise them. A few examples:
- Downgrade all National Parks to AONBs – they are not yet worthy of the name of National Park – and then call all these areas Upland Nature Areas (UNAs)
- Withdraw subsidies from farming and forestry in all UNAs
- Use money saved by subsidy withdrawal for a land purchase fund so that more and more upland land is publicly owned
- Artificially maintain small areas of overgrazed sheep walk in the Lake District and driven grouse shooting in the North York Moors as lessons to future generations of how wildlife-poor upland areas once were.
I did warn you to take a deep breath first. A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife is ambitious and controversial – but this country’s wildlife and wild places really aren’t in a good place right now. Change is necessary. After interviewing him for this magazine, I think Chris Packham is one of very few people who could actually make it happen. For that to work, we all need to listen.
A lifetime of campaigning
Most people know Chris Packham as a TV presenter – from Springwatch, Autumnwatch and Winterwatch and, for those of my generation, from children’s nature series The Really Wild Show. But he’s always seen himself as a campaigner – right back to his teens, when he “kicked up a fuss with the local press” about planned building developments near his parents’ home, at a place where he conducted his adolescent explorations and had found foxgloves, birds’ nests and badger setts. “I was very perturbed about the plight of the badgers,” Chris explains in his characteristically dry tone.
The building work nevertheless went ahead – although the development was obviously misguided, as the new buildings soon collapsed. For Chris, the episode was a clear signal in the direction of his future. “I might have had the last laugh but I’m afraid the badgers didn’t. From that point onwards I’ve been aware of the need to speak up and use my voice for those things that can’t speak for themselves,” he says.
In the intervening years, Chris Packham has campaigned effectively against the annual massacre of migrating birds in Malta and has been a vociferous opponent of the badger cull. But recently he has recognised the need to campaign wider, louder and harder. “As I’ve got older and been able to speak to an increasing size of audience, it’s become mandatory,” he explains.
“I see it as an essential thing to do. I feel very frustrated when people have a voice and don’t use it for a creative good. Everyone’s so risk-averse so they find a reason for hiding in the shadows. But we need to stand up and be counted. We need to stand up and be counted for a planet in crisis.”
Our Campaigner of the Year
Chris Packham was a very popular choice as Campaigner of the Year in The Great Outdoors Awards 2018. Here are some comments from people who voted for him:
“A man of courage, of actions not just words and a provider of solutions and ideas – Chris Packham deserves recognition above anyone in any public field”
“All round top man – so passionate about wildlife and protecting the environment so that wildlife can flourish. We don’t own this planet, we just happen to be the apex predator, who don’t, on the whole, care about the damage we do. Chris Packham is trying to redress the balance.”
“Chris has my vote for his tireless campaigning, for always raising his head above the parapet. For encouraging so many children. For using the bile projected at him as fuel to keep going. And for having a personal mantra of always doing ‘the right thing’. I have so much respect for this man.”
“Chris Packham is a fantastic advocate for our imperilled wildlife which faces multiple threats from vested interests at home and abroad. Passionate, tireless and fearless.”
“Fearless campaigner never afraid to confront uncomfortable truths but in a way that is challenging and persuasive, rather than confrontational and alienating. Hugely knowledgeable about whatever issues he raises, and very honest and persuasive in discussion.”
“He has been crucial in getting a lot of people to act through his initiative, the People’s Walk for Wildlife and A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife. He has created, along with other key figures and leading on from David Attenborough and the plastic revolution, a true turning point in nature conservation as part of our daily lives.”
“Speaks his mind where others fear to tread, and backs up all his arguments with the facts, as uncomfortable as they may be. A passionate supporter and advocate of the natural world from micro-to-macro.”
Clearly it takes bravery to stick your head over the parapet, particularly in the age of social media. Chris Packham has received plenty of flak from those who disagree with him, particularly from advocates of industrial farming and people he labels “apologists for wildlife crime”. But he continues to fight his corner, and to do so more and more fiercely. Referring to his aforementioned critics, he says: “If they’re hanging on to outdated lives and practices then they will attack you personally. It just means you’re winning.”
The word ‘winning’ suggests optimism among all the bleak statistics. Are there really many reasons to be cheerful about the state of wildlife, here at home or around the world? “I am optimistic!” Chris exclaims, passionately. “On certain issues we are making more progress than we have in a long time.”
He believes much of this success is down to social media and its effectiveness as a campaigning tool. As an example, he mentions the inroads that have been made with driven grouse shooting – a practice that is hugely detrimental to the local landscape and wildlife. Nowadays, rather than celebrating the ‘Glorious Twelfth’, the mainstream media gives as much attention to the negative aspects of the driven grouse shooting industry. Chris argues this has been achieved through a “small number of people speaking with evidence and authority” and “effecting change peacefully, democratically and effectively,” using social media to amplify their voices.
He explains: “Although we are not using it maximally yet, social media has proved to be a very valuable tool. I think this is leading us in the right direction. Although we still live in a world that is populated by a number of miscreants and malpractices, there is nowhere to hide now. In the past we struggled to get them on page 14 of a newspaper. Now we can splash them all over social media.
“Unfortunately we are living in a time where politics globally and nationally is questionable but that will change. As we exercise our voice, then people will have no choice but to listen to us. As long as we ask for reasonable things on a sane platform and with sound science, then we will undoubtedly win.”
Well, it’s either that or we all stick our heads in the sand.
I ask Chris what people like you and I can do, as hillwalkers – ordinary people who are passionate about Britain’s hills, mountains and wild places?
“First look and see what’s healthy and what’s not. What’s healthy we need to protect and what’s not, we need to repair. Get yourself onto those social media platforms, share your concerns. Feed them with information. Talk about the specifics of your own situation.
“We all have our own particular reasons for standing up and wanting to look after the great outdoors. We need to recognise our commonality. I go to the same places as people like you who go walking. I go bird watching. Working together we’re a much louder and more effective force.”
To read A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife, go to chrispackham.co.uk.
The January issue of The Great Outdoors is available now, including all the coverage of The Great Outdoors Awards 2019.